TOM MARQUARDT AND PATRICK DARR

The Wine Guys

With the college bowl games long gone and NFL playoffs well under way, itís too cold to go outside for long. And, the days are still depressingly short, so what is there to do you for some fun and excitement?

Throw a wine tasting party.

We have regular wine gatherings to seriously taste wines for a column, and other times just for fun and conversation. The wine is just to get conversations going. You can invite friends who know each other well or strangers who have never met. We guarantee that after sampling a few of the wines strangers and friends alike will find common ground for conversation.††† ††† †††

There is no fixed formula to putting together a successful party, but a few tried-and-true elements have worked for us. First donít take the wine too seriously, as we remind ourselves on a regular basis. It is fermented grape juice. Second, donít invite too many people. Six to eight people seems to work well for us since a 25-oz. bottle is hard to share with any greater number of people.

Third, serve plenty of food because the experience of matching wine and food is part of the total experience.

Sometimes weíll have a wine theme, such as 2003 red bordeaux,† current California chardonnays† or, as we did last month, current merlots under $20. Each invited guest brings a bottle and serves it wrapped in a paper bag. The group then votes on the wines to determine the favorites.

The results can be an eye-opening experience since the most highly touted or expensive wines often donít win ó or even place among the top wines.†† We like to greet our guests with a glass of sparkling wine or champagne. An inexpensive cava from Spain like Freixenet or an Italian Prosecco fill this role nicely, and can easily be found for under $12 per bottle. Have a nice selection of assorted cheeses along with crackers and bread. Pates and salamis also match well with the served wines.††† ††† ††† †

Once you start tasting the bagged wines the party will take on a life of its own. Encourage discussion and comments, and remember everyone is entitled to their opinion. Peopleís tastes vary widely, and itís fun to discover your preferences without the influence of a wineís label and reputation. Have the group keep score, if you want. If not just enjoy the wines.

We like to finish up the party with some substantial food like grilled meat and sausages, a nice hearty soup, or a long simmered pot roast.

Call up a few friends and try a casual wine tasting this weekend.

WINE FINDS

Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($20). Winemaker Ed Killian continues to make one of the best wines at this price point. Using grapes from the Alexander Valley, the 2006 cabernet has luxurious black cherry and plum fruit character with hints of licorice and soft mouthfeel.

Robert Talbott Chardonnay Monterey County Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Cuvee Carlotta 2005 ($65). Spicy baked apple and ripe pineapple nose with a hint of citrus. Deep golden color. Ripe and rich in the mouth with terrific ripe apple, and tropical fruit elements and a hint of coconut. Nice creamy finish. A big wine that although pricey, it delivers in the glass.

WillaKenzie Estate Pinot Blanc 2008 ($20). This reputable Washington state producer makes a very flavorable pinot blanc with a grapefruit aroma and peach, lime flavors. Good mineral note and crisp acidity.

Rocca Family Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($75).† Huge aromas and concentrated, opulent red fruit flavors and a dash of vanilla.

Coppola Directorís Cut Zinfandel 2007 ($21). Concentrated, jammy raspberry and black berry fruit with a hint of chocolate and spice.

Chateau Souverain Alexander Valley Chardonnay 2008. Pear, apple flavors, buttery mouthfeel, nice oak. We liked this a lot for the price.

Quickfire Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 ($19). A partnership of Terlato Wines and Bravoís ďTop ChefĒ, Quickfire is new to the market. Good blackberry and chocolate flavors.